The opossum joke

(I posted a version of this under the heading “The opossum” on July 30th, but by a WordPress glitch the link to that posting was later re-directed to the next posting in line, “Ralph at the Port Authority” (here), so that my earlier posting disappeared completely. I lamented this loss on Facebook, and eventually archivist and quote investigator Garson O’Toole magicked up a Google Cache version of the text for me. Thanks to Garson, here’s a reconstituted version.)

(Totally baffled addendum. WordPress has published this revised posting with the date 7/30, though it was actually posted on 8/1.)

A very sweet One Big Happy from 6/30: Ruthie and her grandfather:


A granddad joke — well, actually, two of them in sequence, the first sledgehammer simple (a classic dad joke), the second delightfully subtle (a meta-joke in which the audience response becomes a crucial part of the joke).

Timothy O’Possum. A simple wordplay on the Irish pattern of patronymic surnames, according to which O’Possum would have originated as ‘son of Possum’. From Wikipedia on names in the Irish language:

A male’s surname generally takes the form Ó/Ua (meaning “descendant”) or Mac (“son”) followed by the genitive case of a name, as in Ó Dónaill (“descendant of Dónall”) or Mac Lochlainn (“son of Lochlann”).

Such naming patterns are then adapted in English as surnames in O’ (O’Ryan, O’Kelly) and Mac / Mc (MacNamara / McNamara < Mac Conmara, Conmara / Cumara being an 11th-century chieftan’s name in County Clare).

Joke-telling possums. Grandpa’s second explanation is that an opossum
is a possum who tells a dad joke (corny jokes that are stereotypically told by fathers to children) — because a dad joke is inclined to elicit an affectionately exasperated exclamation “Oh, daddy” from the child. As in the last panel of #1.

But Grandpa doesn’t actually explain this; instead, in a kind of meta-move, he causes Ruthie to produce this response, to in effect finish the joke for him.

Dad jokes. From Wikipedia about the label dad joke:

A dad joke is a short joke, typically a pun, presented as a one-liner or a question and answer, but not a narrative. Generally inoffensive, dad jokes are stereotypically told by fathers among family, either with sincere humorous intent, or to intentionally provoke a negative reaction to its overly-simplistic humor.

(#2) The dad joke is an oral (not written) form; this one is a perfect pun in ordinary connected speech, where want a and want to are homophonous, so that the ambiguity of the noun box denoting a container and the verb box denoting a type of fighting can be exploited with a heavy hand

Many dad jokes may be considered anti-jokes, deriving humor from an intentionally unfunny punchline. An example dad jokes goes as follows: A child will say to the dad, “I’m hungry,” to which the dad will reply, “Hi, Hungry, I’m Dad.”

While the exact origin of the term dad joke is unknown, a writer for the Gettysburg Times wrote an impassioned defense of the genre in June of 1987 under the headline “Don’t ban the ‘Dad’ jokes; preserve and revere them”. The earliest known use of the term online was on B3ta Forums in December 2003. On a thread titled “Dad Jokes”, users shared “lame jokes” made by their fathers. The term “dad jokes” received mentions in Australian quiz show Spicks and Specks in 2009, and in the American sitcom How I Met Your Mother in 2008. However, the term spread into general use only after 2014 with increasing numbers of web searches on Google.

So the label is relatively recent. But the cultural practice of fathers telling such jokes has a very long history, which so far as I know has not been traced.

(I note, once again, that the existence of some socioculturally significant referent is not at all dependent on there being a generally known label for it. As when higher-level taxa in folk taxonomies lack accepted labels — the very common phenomenon of unlabeled taxa — though the phenomenon is more general than that, as we see here. The practice of telling dad jokes could have gone on for centuries without anyone having put a name to it. The label doesn’t create the practice, though it does make it especially salient psychologically.)

(I can vouch for the practice flourishing 70 years ago; my own father was a master of the genre and elicited a great many mock-anguished groans of “Oh, Dad!” from me (and “Oh, Zip!” from my mother). Terrible, cheap and easy puns, notable specifically because they were strained and not really clever.)

Note the complexity of the practice. The audience response — which isn’t necessarily verbal, but can be eye-rolling, mock glowers, or other non-verbal reaction — is an integral part of the practice. And it’s crucial that the joke be ostentatiously lame.

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